As I prepare to send out my new February newsletter, I've realized my last farming blog post was made in June! Eeek! So let me fill you in with what's been going on. It includes farm expansion, soil test results, and plans for this new year!
The first two years of my no-till growing venture were focused on 1/4th acre. I grew flowers on approximately 15 beds, all 3' wide by 70' long. Last spring, I planned on expanding the farm. Instead of tilling and growing on my expanded area right away, I decided to build up the soil as much as I could. This involved laying compost, amendments, and sowing a summer cover crop of cowpeas and buckwheat. This did quite well. When it was almost finished flowering, I mowed it down, left it on top of the soil and covered the whole area with landscape fabric. This method is called occultation, which I talk about more in previous blog posts.
When everything was properly decomposed, I lifted the fabric and realized the soil needed even more help. It was autumn, so I literally went around the City of Davis with a tarp scooping up leaf piles and bringing them to the farm. Several trips later, the new area was covered in leaves which not only mulched the soil (and soil should be covered at all times), but it will break down and add delicious minerals into the soil. The next step, happening this month, will be to cover the leaves with even more compost, and hope that it'll be sufficient to plant into come April!
Now this isn't the only expanded area. I have another section which I treated differently and not on purpose. Mainly because of limited time and resources. With this second section, I added compost and amendments over dried grass essentially and then seeded with a winter cover crop mix late September. I had to sprinkle it in for quite a while before any rain came in December. My watering's were not too consistent, and the grasses came up fierce, outcompeting the beans. I have super tall grass patches in that area, but I'm not worried. I'll mow and cover with landscape fabric this month knowing that the grass will still add composition to the soil. This area will also be ready to plant in come April!
With my new expanded areas, I now will be growing on 1/3rd acre and I will have 6 more rows to plant in! In fact, I just sent all my seeds to be started for me. The growers at Pacific Star Gardens in Woodland offers the service of starting seeds for other farmers, which is perfect for me because I do not have a greenhouse nor a good track record of starting seeds indoors. They let me mix varieties in their 216 cell trays which is awesome and the peace of mind that I will have guaranteed starts in spring is priceless. Now, if every single cell produced a healthy start (which never happens), but hypothetically, I would have 3,672 summer starts!
Another project happening this month is irrigation expansion for my new growing areas! I need to make some repairs to the pop up, add a header line, and new emitter lines down the length of my rows. I use netafim drip tube, which is sturdy and long lasting. Most landscapers use this stuff! I will have to talk with some irrigation specialists about how to make a cohesive system, and admittedly, I'm really not looking forward to doing this project! I tend to have a personal block towards building and constructing things, so I plan to solicit help on this one.
Now about that soil test I just did... My flower farming friend, Lisa Haas, graciously offered to come over and sample my soil with me using her fancy, in depth, soil testing kit! I took samples from both new areas I'm expanding to as well as from a row where cotton had grown last year. The goal is to get to the native soil, which for us in the Central Valley of CA, is heavy clay. I was eager to learn about it! and also admittedly, I have never done a soil test. I've planed too, I really did. Twice I had dug soil and then never followed through with mailing it to a lab. Not sure what my block was against that one. But regardless, we did a soil test!! Better now than never.
The results of each test (except cotton because we couldn't get a diluted enough sample) were a pH of 7.2 which is damn near perfect. pH is important to note because that affects the uptake of nutrients. I wouldn't matter if you had all the right constituents and minerals, if the pH was off, your plants wouldn't be able to use it. Next, in each sample, I found out my Nitrogen levels were off the charts high! The tests also showed that Phosphorus and Potassium were off the charts high! So, I'm set on my macro nutrients! The confusing part came when testing for Calcium and Sulfates which used a "turbidity" type of test for analysis. Both results were really, really light supposed to be compared to a grey scale. So either, they are off the charts high as well (lighter than the lightest reading indicating high levels), OR those nutrients are virtually non-existent. It was hard to find the answer to this question online, so I believe a future test of the leaves of plants will be able to tell me if they are in fact, getting calcium and sulfates. So the macro nutrients we're great. The Ca and sulfates are to be determined, and lastly, the micro nutrients were not looking so good. We tested for Magnesium, Manganese, and Ferric Iron. Both tests showed extremely low, practically non-existent amounts. These micro nutrients are actually pretty important, particularly magnesium, which is incorporated into each chlorophyll molecule and stimulates the uptake of phosphorus. And so the question is, while I have good phosphorus levels, is it actually available to my plants without the presence of Magnesium? See, a lot of these molecules work hand in hand and often times without one, plants loose the ability to use the other. So what does this mean in terms of remedies? The most common remedy for a magnesium deficient soil is to add limestone. However, limestone can alter the pH making the soil more basic. Other ways to add magnesium are through magnesium sulfate (which is soluble) or magnesium oxide (which is insoluble). I still have to research products and determine how much, and probably a combination, would be best. As far as the trace nutrients, it is recommended that those are used in foliar sprays. Azomite, which is volcanic post dust and an amendment I love, contains those trace minerals plus MUCH more and I have been adding it to my compost tea brewing system. So, I'll keep doing that!
Overall, I learned it's really insightful and empowering to tune into what is actually present or not in the soils we grow on. Soil health is so important to me. It's why I don't till. It's also why I add copious amounts of compost, and take that extra step and cost to mulch the soil. Through farming, I am consistently humbled by how much I don't know. I am also completely humbled to see how well plants have grown in heavy clay with no-till farming! I am going to keep learning and keep experimenting!! If you're a grower, I encourage you to do the same.
Thanks for reading!